Monday 21 January 2008
Le Café Anglais....
To dinner, at Rowley Leigh's new venture in Bayswater, which seems to have been so widely reviewed recently that I wonder if anywhere else has opened in the past few weeks - leaving no other options for the food journo's to get their teeth into.
I have mixed feelings about Rowley Leigh. I've always liked Kensington Place - where he made his name and ruled the roost for quite a few years: an unpretentious menu (very good quality, elbows-out eating, essentially), and a good value wine list, well chosen and sensibly priced. RL's weekly column in the FT, on the other hand, I find pompous and self-important, and the recipes are in general rather silly - or at least they were until the point when I decided to stop reading him, since I was just getting irritated by it. IMHO he'd do much better to stay in the Kitchen, and stick with the saucepans....
And so.....Le Café Anglais. In appearance, it resembles the first-class restaurant on a luxury liner, large and sleek, with much chrome and white nappery and uniformed staff in evidence. Foolishly taking a seat on the banquette side of the table, though, my heart sank along with my centre of gravity as I realised they'd got the heights of the banquettes wrong, and I felt as though I were ten years old once more, with the need for a large cushion and a couple of telephone directories in order to be the right height to have my hair cut! An unnerving sensation, after all these years.....
The menu didn't make me feel a lot happier - although the Kir that accompanied it was perfectly made, with not too much Cassis, as is so often the case.
In fact, I struggled with the menu. As we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, I tried in vain to find anything amongst the First Course selection that seemed at all interesting: three different kinds of soup didn't do it for me, and nor did the offer of a selection of omelettes. A.A. Gill had warned everybody off the Pike Boudin; Parma Ham with Quince Jelly at twelve quid a pop didn't seem much of an argument; and I was increasingly resigned to the prospect of Potato Salad with Truffles.....when Gina had the brainwave of opting instead for a generous selection from the list of Hors d'Oeuvres. An inspired idea, since not only were the latter a fraction the price of the former, but the list had clearly been put together by somebody with ten times as much imagination. We ended up with Salsify Tempura (light as air); Pork Rillettes (delicious); Anchovy Toast, with Parmesan Custard (the Platonic form of Welsh Rarebit - definitely a nickable idea); and some Octopus, and a dish of braised fish of some kind, both of which were finished before they made it to my side of the table - so I presume the other side of the table had thought they were really rather good.
Second Course dishes went back to being rather dull, though. I know the place positions itself as a 'rotisserie', and so could be forgiven for the rather deadening list of roast Lamb, roast Duck, roast Beef, roast Chicken.......but it does nothing to quicken the pulse in reading it. My Beef was perfectly ok - although I suspect that they've adopted a cooking method whereby the meat is par-cooked in advance - possibly by poaching it - and then finished on the rotisserie just before serving. I can't think what else explains the unusually even pinkness throughout each slice, and I have to say that although the quality of the meat was good, the way it had been cooked avoided improving its personality in any way.
The wine list, on the other hand, I liked. And yes, we quite happily partook - no point in wearing hair-shirts in public. We started with an excellent bottle of Grüner Veltliner from Birgit Eichinger; an austrian wine, the grape is developed from the traminer (which explains why the wine has all of the best characteristics of a gewürztraminer, but without the scent). And we then moved on to a rather good Morellino di Scansano - fruity and rounded - which is increasingly becoming our House Red in Italy; full-bodied, with a good strong character, but without the assertiveness of the super-tuscans (which can become a bit tiresome after a while, frankly).
It didn't occur to anybody to think about a dessert, although we happily ploughed into another bottle of Morellino to round off the evening - and only realised as we finished it that the room had emptied around us, and the staff were clearly anxious to go home. Which I think is probably a fair indication that we'd had a good time....
All-told, I think I'd recommend the place - although with the caveat that you need to work at the menu with care. It would be all too easy to have a very dull and extremely over-priced meal at Le Café Anglais, if you weren't concentrating. Oh, and it might be a good idea to take along with you a couple of old telephone directories, as well, if you don't want to sit with your chin resting on the tablecloth!
Boeuf Stroganoff, with Green Beans